Christmas begins today and lasts through January 5. Keep your tree up, your lights lit, your candles burning, the magi approaching the manger…. Celebrate. “For unto us a child is born…and his name shall be called Wonderful.”
Advent for me has been both a countup and a countdown to Christmas.
My two Advent calendars are a colorful accumulation of prayers and ponderings. On one I started out with 26 blank trees and prayed for someone each day with doodles and color. The other calendar began with a blank piece of purple cardboard. On circular stickers are words and sentences captured from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. Both calendars started off with nothing on them and grew. They are evidence of daily time sitting in a chair and staying focused—if only for a few minutes.
The dry, brown paperwhite narcissus bulbs planted at the beginning of Advent npw have tall green shoots. One bowl even has blossoms. Watching their growth each day was like having a living Advent calendar in my house.
Both of these Advent practices began with almost nothing and day by day revealed new growth. I was waiting for Christmas, but it felt like I was not waiting in vain.
The candles on the Advent wreath were beautiful on Advent One. They get smaller and more distorted each day, ticking off the days and hours until Christmas. Wax drips down and clumps on the table. The greens around the candles were so dry, they were a fire hazard; I threw them away. In spite of their demise, the dried–up greenery and the disappearing candles herald the imminence of Jesus’ birth.
The countup/countdown combo feels like just another Advent paradox to add to a growing collection: light/darkness, already/not yet, faith/fear, countup/countdown…. During Advent we pay attention to the paradoxes and sometimes act as if they are just an Advent thing that goes away with Christmas. But living with paradox is a constant part of daily life.
Life, for me, is both a countup and a countdown. These words do not fit nicely on a sequential or chronological timeline. Neither is necessarily a “better” experience than the other. Sometimes things are built up, sometimes torn down. Often countups and countdowns walk hand and hand. Both my countup and countdown Advent experiences were beacons to point the way to Christmas.
The Power of Three-Sentence Stories ♦
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
For Christians, the above three-sentence story is the essence of our faith: Christ’s victory over death and the promise of his return. Some Christians say these words every time they share bread and wine in the Holy Communion. Even small children can recite and remember these words.
Three-sentence stories are one of my favorite ways to order muddled thoughts. As a Christian formation tool, they give adults and children a safe and playful framework to organize and express ideas. I use 3-sentence stories in workshops and retreats, often as a way for people to summarize what they heard from a passage of Scripture. The stories can be oral or written.
Teaching 3-Sentence Stories
To teach the 3-sentence story form to children, start with a concrete, oral version. Ask them to describe the clothes they are wearing or what they ate for breakfast this morning. Give an example.
I ate one fried egg with a runny yolk.
The toast was too dark and crisp.
My coffee had cream and sugar in it.
When and How to Use this Tool
Three-sentence stories can be written as a private practice, but as a group activity they build community. Try 3-sentence stories in a family setting, a Christian formation class, an Adult forum, a church school class, or youth group. In my experience most people love to read their stories aloud. The collective result feels like a playful and powerful poetry jam. Because the stories are short, many people get to share.
As an Advent and Christmas Activity
Advent lends itself to writing and telling these simple stories. The rich vocabulary, characters, seasonal customs, and Bible stories provide opportunities to use this tool. Here are a few examples:
Tell a 3-sentence story about an Advent practice in your home:
We have purple candles in our wreath.
Purple is the new Red.
Like a traffic light, it signals STOP, wait, pay attention.
Tell a 3-sentence story about a character from the Bible:
Mary was a Jewish teenager.
The angel asked if she would be the mother of God’s son.
Mary said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
In Advent we often talk about the word Hope. Write a 3-sentence story about what you hope for.
I hope for great schools and great healthcare for everyone.
I want to see older people have more choices for their lives.
I hope God will help me become a less judgmental person.
Proclaim Christmas in Three Sentences!
Here’s another idea for a 3-sentence story. I want to proclaim the Nativity with as much impact as “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” I want to highlight the miracle of the Incarnation, God’s presence on earth as the flesh and blood human named Jesus. So here is my first draft to capture the power and importance of the Nativity Season –Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany:
Christ is longed for.
Christ is born.
Christ will spread like wildfire.
What is your 3-sentence story for the Nativity Season?
♦ I first learned about 3-sentence stories from Interplay, “a global social movement dedicated to ease, connection, human sustainability and play.”
Advent gives me the chance to reencounter the lush, dynamic vocabulary of the Christian tradition. The words on my round-sticker calendar are like old friends who are familiar yet always new. Like words in Scripture they are not stagnant. They reveal something new about themselves each time I spend time with them. It would be easier to think they have a single definition and once I’ve learned it, my work is done. But that would be putting a choke chain on what the words have to say to me or what God has to reveal to me through them. The Christian faith is not summed up in a set of one-dimensional, unchanging words.
A line from the Billy Collins poem called Introduction to Poetry comes to mind. Billy Collins describes his students’ way of dealing with poetry: “…all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.” Like poems, we can try to pin down the words of our faith or we can spend a lifetime with them and slowly marinate in the expansive beauty of their height, depth, and breadth.
Below is my friend Cindy’s first two weeks of Advent in word and drawing. Cindy described her experience of using Advent calendars in the December 3 post on my blog. Mostly Markers is Cindy’s blog about “drawing, doodles, and a few words.”
I detest the word “cute.” Maybe it’s because that word has been used on me more than a few times. When I was a kid “cute” had the politically incorrect definition of “short, fat, and bow-legged.” I was probably at least two of those things. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a routine full of bumps and grinds, our exercise teacher told the class.”You all are so cute,” If we had been under 40, instead of over 50, she would have said we were hot. I posted this story on Facebook and one man said, “Take what you can get, sister.” Ugh.
My worse experience of cuteness was when I wrote a letter at age twenty-something explaining why I could no longer be a member of the church of my childhood. I had spent hours writing it. It was thoughtful and full of gratitude for my years in the church.The recipient read it and said, “That was such a cute letter.” It felt like a huge dis of a very difficult decision.
Terminal cuteness feels like a life sentence. To me, puppies and babies are cute; but much after toddlerhood, “You’re so cute,” seems dismissive and patronizing. Call me a cranky old lady, but I feel scorn for the word “cute.”
Since I am away from most of my worldly possessions for a year, I left all of my Christmas ornaments in Memphis including a thirty-year old Nativity set, hand-painted by a friend. It’s hard to imagine the Nativity Season without a crèche, so I purchased one from a big box store for $9.99. I brought it home and then noticed how totally cute it was. The figures have perfectly spherical heads with pink cheeks and thin, painted on smiles. They look like cartoon characters and I feel scorn for the manufacturer and for the silly Mary and Joseph. I consider returning them to the store.
Then it hits me. Maybe this is exactly what people thought about the real Mary and Joseph. Refugees coming to town with little money and no place to stay were almost certainly objects of ridicule and scorn. Didn’t they have any connections or know someone who could put them up for the night? How low are these people to end up in a cave or a barn to give birth? Isaiah 53:3 comes to mind: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” (NRSV)
So I decide to keep the Nativity set. It reminds me of the scorn and rejection suffered by Mary and Joseph. It is also an unlovely reminder of the scorn in my own head and heart, not just for the word “cute,” but for plenty of other things and maybe even some people.
As a strong P (Perceiver) on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I have trouble making decisions, especially when there are so many options to choose from. Perceivers never have enough data. Some new piece of information confuses them and keeps them from making decisions. Someone once told me it was a good thing I said a young, impulsive “Yes” to marriage; if I had waited I never would have been able to make a decision.
When it comes to Advent, there are so many ways to practice or celebrate it. “Which Advent calendar to use?” “Which book of meditations to read?” “Purple or blue candles?” “Which books of Scripture to read?” “Which organizations, charities, and causes to send our annual gifts to?” All these questions and choices befuddle me. I realize these are First World privileges and not of major importance in the scheme of things. But these practices do provide a framework for my prayer/spiritual life. Much to my delight, I made a few choices before the third week of Advent. I chose purple candles, two Advent calendars, and one book of meditations.
The calendars below show the first eight days of Advent. On the calendar with the round stickers I wrote a line from God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The book has reflections by Bonhoeffer on Advent, a “bonus” piece of writing by him or another theologian, and a relevant Scripture passage. It is short and manageable. Much of the writing is from Bonhoeffer’s time in prison before his execution. Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend, “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that, or the other—things that are of really no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.” (p.X, Editor’s Preface) I like to look back at the thoughts accumulating each day. It feels like a spiritual This is the House That Jack Built—the Mother Goose rhyme where something new is added with each repetition of the rhyme.
The second calendar is for intercessions—prayers of concern and gratitude for people in my life. This visual prayer list keeps the names within eyeshot of me and reminds me to pray for them–with or without words.
It’s not too late to count up to Christmas with an Advent calendar. Templates are available here.
My friend Cindy O gave me permission to doodle about 30 years ago. She encouraged me to enjoy the process of moving pen and colored markers on paper and to forget about the end result. I have been a doodler ever since. Cindy has joined me in praying Advent calendars since 2008. Here is her 2008 calendar followed by a list of things she learned about the process. Do not be intimidated by her drawing ability! My calendars never look this good.